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Simonizing

READ Pauline Kael's I Lost It at the Movies and all the autobiographical sidetracks over psychic frustrations and coed heartbreak, though usually filled with raucous humorous, seem part of an introverted cultural temperament spent somewhere in the '50's, dated with Salinger and old Italian films. Read Wilfrid Sheed's Max Jamison, the chronicle of an honest theater critic's fall, and the author's ruthless lapsed-Catholic cynicism as he looks at a mass culture eating its discriminators might take you back to the self-protective cliques of '60's bourgeois intelligentsia.

Any revelation of John Simon's personality, however, smacks more of romantic literary heritage than of any recent climate in American social history. He is less ashamed than anyone else writing today to lay his taste for intangibles like Beauty on the printed line. He is always ready to use centuries-old peaks of artistic creation as his touchstones. And, given a film's base in developed character and a humanist impulse, he can seem willfully idiosyncratic in the works he actually chooses to admire.

Simon came to Cambridge three weeks ago to deliver the annual Theodore Spencer lecture. Spencer was, in fact, Simon's own tutor, and "fellow-actor in Eliot House productions." But more than that gentle irony distinguished the talk: It was the first to be given on film in the Spencer series. Although Simon is generally known as the ogre who stalks Broadway in hopes of trash to skewer for his New York theater column, he's clearly much happier commenting on current film--which he does, at greater length, and for far less pay, in the pages of The New Leader. For his Harvard audience, Simon read a chapter from his forthcoming book on Ingmar Bergman--the director whom Simon reveres as the greatest in film history.

SIMON'S AUDIENCE that Thursday afternoon was the most genteel I'd ever seen at the Lowell Lecture Hall (where only six days previously Mr. Mailer had regaled a rowdy bunch with pungent braggadocio). Strike activities and riot scares had daunted all but the most dyed-in-the-silk aesthetes amongst undergrads. Professors and their wives dominated the thirty present, along with scattered unafilliated ladies. But Smiles of the Summer Night--Simon's subject for the day--is the most polite of Bergman's films.

And there are, of course, more involved reasons why Simon might have wished to read that one chapter of analysis. Smiles is a film which draws on elements of all the arts, expressing vital psychological and social truths in ways which enlarge the mind through the senses. Bergman allies forms of dance, music, and theater with his own consummate film craftsmanship to produce his final statement on the nature of young love. It's the film most typical of Bergman's early romanticism (nostalgic tinges re-appear in such darker masterworks as Shame or The Passion of Anna). Beyond Smiles itself, Bergman always epitomizes the searching individualist colliding against walls of spiritual disbelief, or the bonds of society which disrupt human happiness. A description of Simon himself, at times.

At any rate, Simon was brainily charismatic that Thursday, and his listeners approved. Smiles is a quadrille danced by four pairs of lovers, with a geometric literary netting at its base (all end up in the arms of those they first refused), and cosmic ironies at its outer limits. Simon developed analogies ranging from Mozart to Rilke, and worked out thematic love parallels which are, philosophically, ambiguously resolved: Whether innocent, inspired love is given only to a few, or whether it is an emotion that all men experience and pass through is left unanswered. Bergman celebrates the mature man's ability to enter new emotional theaters, where a protecting rationality may color experience but not destroy it. Simon hit his high point when portraying the greatest test of that belief.

It comes at the resolution of the film's main action. A distinguished middle-aged lawyer is unable to consummate his second marriage to a skittish child-wife--who has meanwhile fallen in love with the lawyer's church-studying stepson. At a house party which the three other love pairs attend also, the wife and the stepson, by a variety of plot and thematic clevernesses, end up in the same bed. The young couple make their exit in the lawyer's carriage, while he looks on and does nothing. The wife's virginal white veil flutters to the ground in the grey light of early dawn, and the lawyer lifts it to his brow with a groan as he falls against a courtyard wall. Even in lecture, the scene retained its resonances--a credit both to Bergman's imagination and Simon's prose.

Simon was disgruntled at hour's end, having spent his energies for a piddling crowd. But he sparked up by the time he hit Mass Ave the next day. He hustled his six foot four inch frame with ramrod posture through Cambridge sidewalks which could barely hold the both of us, and only for an instant lost his self-control--breaking into a half-stumble and a nervous twitch when he dropped his coat at Schoenhof's. He whisked through the Crimson building for a 30-second stop, and then went past to the Charles.

There he slowed down a bit, took more leisurely glances at the passing beauty ("feminine pulchritude," he called it), and talked of shared arcana. "You know," he said conspiratorally, with a Yugoslavian roll, "the only reason Walker got his interview was from kissing Kubrick's ass..." Thus dispensing with the first book of the series in which his own appears.

There was little to say about his Spencer performance. He did a pro's fine job, and his writing itself was elegant--more detailed and less pretentious than other writings on Bergman (or, for that matter, than film writing in general). And he knew that already.

What can make Simon trying, even when he deals with specific works, is his all-encompassing fear of theory, or of any tradition besides a strictly cultural one which can be brought to bear on film. His abilities of synthesis are limited to an intellectual spectrum that, for all its wit and sometime fierceness, verges on the academic; its hard not to feel that this comes from a refusal to confront reality head-on. Though he does branch out now and then into slightly racier stuff (his festival reports and film journalism are nice and punchy), only the timeless qualities of a work's form and logic, and eternal themes of Life and Love, come to him easily. He's critic who begs the question of relevance, and he doesn't seem apt to change.

If you consider the context he is working in, all this is understandable. A critic in a buyer's mass market must think in terms of personal power to keep security, even sanity, intact. With this job-orientation, when a critic makes it he'll become unadventurous, and rely on past successes--there's no reason why he shouldn't, except for pangs of conscience. It's no accident that when all the big-timers get together, they form something as unprofound as the National Society of Film Critics.

Simon stands apart from the other noseless cultural bloodhounds: He cuts with an innate critical edge. But for those Young Turks who admire the man's human and artistic standards, while trying to influence larger audiences and so change an industry, the figure he and the rest of the good old-stylers assume is as much obstacle as bulwark.

In fact, to steal a moral from life, Mr. Simon only came to the Crimson to read the review of his talk. But, there had been no space for a Spencer lecture on a front page crammed with strike news.

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